May I ask for your advice? I’m a headhunter. What is the best thing to say to a candidate when they ask who is the client I’m representing? I don’t want them going after the job on their own or using another headhunter. Thanks for your time.

Nick’s Reply

headhunters waste timeNice to hear from a “headhunter,” but I’m more concerned about what a candidate should do when you won’t disclose your client. Why on earth would you not tell a candidate who your client is? Aren’t you proud of the client?

Unfortunately, I say that with tongue in cheek. I know why you won’t disclose who your client company is. You’re afraid the candidate will take the information, contact the company directly about the job, cut you out of the loop, and cost you a placement fee.

Is this a headhunter or a “headhunter”?

But there’s more to this that job candidates need to know, because this is part of how “headhunters” (I shudder to call them that) waste job candidates’ time. I’m betting you’re worried because you have no control over your client, and that’s because you have no contract or written agreement with the company. (If you do have a written agreement but it’s not exclusive, candidates face the same problem.) It’s simply bad business when a company welcomes lots of “headhunters” to submit resumes of the same candidates indiscriminately and all at once. If the company hires a candidate submitted by 10 “headhunters” and makes a hire, one of the “headhunters” gets paid and the rest get diddley-bop.

Pardon me if I’ve got it wrong, but I think that’s why you’re worried. That’s why you’re a “headhunter” and not a headhunter. (Note to job seekers: Please read They’re not headhunters.)

The Employment System is Broken

This is also proof positive that the Employment System — how HR recruits and hires — is a sham, a scam, an irresponsible cluster-f@ck that doesn’t work for anyone but the database jockeys who build the software that props up this indefensible house of cards. Yes, I’m talking about Applicant Tracking Systems, LinkedIn and Indeed, the baddest HR consultancies and “recruitment automaters,” phony “A.I.”, phony algorithms that “view and judge” video interviews, and HR-we-do-it-all outsourcing rackets. These all contribute to indiscriminate, more-is-better and massively erroneous candidate selection, “review” and “processing.”

I’m sure readers are already laughing because they’ve had loads of their time wasted by headhunters! Now we’re going to take a look at how this happens.

Job Candidates: How headhunters waste your time

Most headhunters work on contingency. That is, they are paid only when the employer actually hires a job candidate the headhunter submitted for a job. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this business model. It’s very common and it can work well enough for the job seeker, the headhunter and the employer. But problems arise when the search is not assigned exclusively, but thrown like chum on the waters to create an insensate recruiter feeding frenzy.

A contingency search assignment should at minimum give you 30, 60 or 90 days to complete without competition or interference from other sources of candidates. You are the only headhunter authorized to submit job candidates for X days. That’s what makes it exclusive. That’s what makes it worth your time to do a good, thorough job. That’s what makes you proud and happy to tell the candidate who your client is.

When an employer solicits many resumes from many sources all at once, it’s practicing garbage in-garbage out recruiting. It wastes job candidates’ time and its own. When “headhunters” are forced to compete this way, they will submit anyone for any job, hoping to get lucky.

How does this waste a job candidate’s time? Because earnest job seekers go on interviews totally wrong for them while the “headhunter” is hoping to get lucky. The candidate’s time costs the “headhunter” nothing because the “headhunter” costs the employer nothing unless a hire is made.

Is this a bona fide job search?

A company that assigns an exclusive search to a headhunter it trusts gets fewer but better candidates simply because it’s worth the headhunter’s time to dedicate the resources to recruit accurately and quickly. Everybody is more likely to win.

So the problem is not how to answer that question. It’s to start with a bona fide search that’s exclusive. Anything else is not good business for you, for the employer, or for the job candidate. The very fact that you fear competing with your own candidate tells us there’s a fundamental problem with the business model you subject yourself to.

If you don’t have a meaningful agreement with the company, recruiting and submitting candidates becomes a crapshoot and you’re not likely to make a placement because of all the counterproductive and phony “competition.” (It’s phony because all the candidates come from the same databases!)

You should not be wasting your time trying to make a placement without a solid, exclusive relationship with your client. And a candidate should not work with you if all you’re doing is submitting yet another copy of their resume to the same employer.

Headhunting is not a numbers game

I know this is hard advice. But headhunting is hard work. That’s why we get paid up to $30,000 to fill a $100,000 job. What most “headhunters” are doing is playing a recruiting lottery, hoping to get lucky. They’re not real headhunters.

Of course, you could just tell the candidate the truth: You can’t name the company because you know they will apply directly or apply through five headhunters hoping the numbers will work in their favor. Or, you could tell them the name and beg them to work only through you.

Please think about this. Headhunting can be a great business — if you are actually doing business with written agreements, trusted clients and trusted sources of great candidates. Everything else is dialing for dollars.

My advice to any headhunter is to do exclusive searches.

Go exclusive or go away

My advice to job seekers is to work only with headhunters that have the inside track on filling a job for a company. They should always ask the headhunter, “Who is the employer, and are you handling this assignment exclusively?” (See headhunter Joe Borer’s excellent article, How to Judge A Headhunter.)

I have no advice for employers that tolerate and encourage a feeding frenzy of “headhunters” competing to fill one job. They deserve the mess they’re in. This is how and why “headhunters” waste job seekers’ time.

I wish you the best.

Do headhunters tell you who their client is? At what point? Have you ever “gone around” a headhunter? Have you ever learned that multiple headhunters submitted you for the same job? What happened?

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  1. I’ve been discreetly looking for a new job since the first of the year.
    Employers seem to be using recruiters and headhunters in lieu of the standard HR schlubs, at least in the job market where I live.
    I had a recruiter contact me for a decent sounding gig early last month. It was the usual cloak of secrecy, the “my client this, and my client that”. I figured out from the job description who her client was. I took a plant tour there years ago, I’ve called on them several times, and I have the Plant Manager’s and the Maintenance Manager’s business cards. When I revealed this she played stupid. Then she informed me that she had to ask me some questions. She asked me my marital status, if I owned my home, etc. I told her those are illegal questions. Her response was “yeah, we know they’re illegal questions, but we still ask them”. My reply was “lady, that’s like saying it’s illegal to drive under the influence, but I still drive under the influence”. I withdrew my name from consideration then and there.
    I had another recruiter contact me for another decent sounding gig just last week. When it came time for Q&A, I asked the young woman a series of questions. She clearly didn’t know squat about the company and blew smoke. When I asked about company culture and management style she answered with the proverbial “work hard play hard”. I asked “what does that even mean”? She couldn’t answer, then emailed me some weird assessment test after we ended the call. Then I had yet another recruiter contact me for a decent job. She requested a phone interview. I know the Maintenance Manager there, and I’ve been dealing with him for the past two years. I told this woman “I don’t deal with recruiters, and I’ll be more than happy to visit with the hiring manager on the phone”. She told me she was the gate keeper, and that I had to go through her. “No thanks” was my reply.
    The rub is that all these employers are well known and reputable players in their respective industries in my area.
    I went around all of these recruiters, got the hiring managers contact info, and submitted my resume directly to them. Needless to say that went nowhere.
    I personally have no time for headhunters and recruiters.

  2. “Do you have an exclusive agreement for this position, or is this from one of your retainer clients?”

    Any Effin’ and Hambone at these two questions, and I hang up. I only wish I still had the hold Western Electric desk phone that REALLY made a slamming sound.

  3. Early in my career, I had a headhunter contact me, and all the headhunter did was read off the classifieds in my professional journal. It was amazing, I had the current month’s journal in my hand, and the headhunter was just reading the adverts, in order, just using “Midwestern city” or “Sunbelt City”, etc., for the actual city name in the advertisement.

    I learned something about the field, very early on.

  4. This sort of thing has pissed me off in the past because the “head hunter” is competing against other “head hunters” and internal HR.

    Most of the time I’ve actually gotten submitted, it ends up that the company was in process of going with someone else.

    • @David: It’s absolutely astonishing that these “recruiters” keep throwing spaghetti against the wall and expect to close a deal. What’s clear is that the recruiting firms will hire anyone and put them on a “desk” and tell them to “try doing this.” I know that turnover in such places is through the roof. The firms themselves don’t care, because their own turnover is the same kind of numbers game as they think recruiting and placement is. They might as well hire runners to go to the 7-11, buy 100 lottery tickets per trip and check the numbers for a winning ticket. Honestly, they’d make more money.

      But far worse is the real source of the problem. This is all funded by HR departments that permit and encourage this “numbers” game.

      Here’s what one genius posted on a Quora thread:

      “There is no such thing as having too many applications to feasibly go through….A computer can go through thousands or tens of thousands of applications a day, rejecting the vast majority which are inappropriate or inadequate — delivering only the most promising, for human review.”

      Employers are the real reason the recruiting industry operates the way it does. Employers and their HR demand MORE applicants and MORE sources of them. They all really believe more is better and that the necessary number of hires will just “fall out” of the process and jobs will be filled. It’s like the proverbial “fire line” of many, many people passing buckets of water so they can put out a massive fire that just gets bigger with time.

      New York City recently passed a law that kicks in January 1, 2023. It prohibits the use of “A.I.” in selecting and hiring people. I can’t wait to see the reverberations from that — if the “industry” doesn’t kill it first.

      • Nick, we’ve talked about this before. Once HR has figured out how to get the pay stubs correct, the pay in the correct accounts, the federal, state, and local forms filed and the W2/1099 forms out to employees then HR has hit it’s level of competence.

        Interviewing and hiring should be done by hiring managers who know what the company does, why it does it, how it does it, and how this relates to the position in question.

  5. The arrogance of this article is paralleled only by its superficiality. If the world operated as “it should be”, we would wipe out hunger and most disease within a month. And social media would not be causing havoc with our children. That is not how the world operates and neither is the reality of situation as it is presented herein.

    • @Barbara: Please explain. Why is my article arrogant and superficial?

  6. Nick,
    Thanks for your clear and accurate assessment of what’s going on with many “headhunters” now. Those of us who have decades of experience find the current behavior grossly substandard and useless.

    • @Marilyn: I tell good headhunters they have nothing to worry about. They have so little real competition that they should be swimming in assignments and placement fees. The only (very real) problem is that headhunters like you lose business to naive employers that really, really want to believe the pitches they get every day from the “search” and “staffing” firms that deliver week-old fruits and vegetables at a huge discount. “SAVE MONEY! We’ll send you THOUSANDS of qualified candidates, and our fees are just $500 apiece!”

      It costs you a lot of money while these employers learn you get what you pay for, and that volume is not quality. But where you have the advantage is here: Once a client sees what you can really deliver, they’ll never go back to the rotten-vegetables vendor. And you need only a small number of good clients to be very successful.

      Thanks for posting that reminder. My caution to job seekers is, look carefully at any headhunter that solicits your attention. There are about 5 in every 100 that are worth gold, treat you well, and help your career. I know it’s a hassle, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If a Marilyn contacts you, you could be set for life.

  7. 30+ years ago, I tried using headhunters and recruiters as I knew guys (mostly M.E.s and E.E.s) then who had success with them and swore by them. Back in the day, the ones I dealt with were stern and insufferable old middle-age white males. While they never did me any favors, they at least demonstrated some modicum of knowledge of the companies they were working for, as well as some semblance of business acumen and saavy. Today, it’s like real estate agents a few years back. Every Joey-bag-of donuts wanted to get into real estate sales to make soft money. Same thing today with headhunters and recruiters. It appears to be young folks fresh out of college at their first job/get their foot in the door job (can’t fault them there. We all had to start somewhere), housewives working remotely for supplemental income (like the recruiter I dealt with just last week), or older folks who’ve washed out of other occupations. That’s what I’ve seen, experienced, and heard.
    My point here is that like other occupations today, back in the day, there were perhaps some professionals in the headhunting and recruiting industry rather than the predominate amateurs.

  8. I’ve dealt with recruiters, job shops, and headhunters.

    A true headhunter has an exclusive agreement with the client and is willing to share that information with the candidate. That level of trust got me to my current position.

    Before that, every time that an opportunity would pop up, I’ll get calls from several recruiters and job shops for the same position. They didn’t have an exclusive, so they wouldn’t share client information. As a result, if I agreed to be submitted by that recruiter, I ran the risk of losing the opportunity because of being double-submitted.

    • @Will: You point out an important risk that I’ve stopped talking about because the prevalence of automated recruiting leads people to believe they have no choice but to let anyone that contacts them try to get them in the door.

      “…if I agreed to be submitted by that recruiter, I ran the risk of losing the opportunity because of being double-submitted.”

      This is a VERY real problem. Your resume can become so widely disseminated that you wind up with a big black X on every copy on file with every employer. Subsequent legitimate attempts you make to get in the door are met with rejection because you’ve already been rejected (for the wrong reasons).

  9. Me: “Do you have an exclusive agreement for this position, or is this from one of your retainer clients?”
    Them: “Oh yes, we are a retained search firm.”
    Me: Could you send me a copy of your contract that can verify that statement?”
    Them: Silence / Hangs up / “F@ck you pal!”

    That said, In my career I’ve had many, many recruiters / headhunters call. They never reveal the company in emails, no matter how insistent you are, but always insist on a telephone call (during business hours of course – you think they’d figure out we all work for a living (if I had a dollar for every call made in my car in the parking lot).
    But they always revealed the company in the call. If they refused, and demanded my CV up front, I’d bail on them. The majority stated they has retained contracts, but this was rarely true as the positions ultimately would be posted on company websites etc.

    I believe they used phone records as “proof” that they had a “contract” with me and that if the company hired me they were owed the fee. Many times other recruiters would call about the same job – I’d tell them “Sorry I’m already represented” – I was afraid if two recruiters would fight over who submitted me the company would cut me loose so as not to have to deal with the lawsuit hassles.

    • @Hank: The first time I got into a fee fight with a “client” company because they told me another headhunter submitted the candidate first, I went crying to my boss.

      “We have to fight this! We’re getting screwed! It’s not fair!”

      My boss laughed. “Keep sending candidates to companies you don’t have a solid agreement and relationship with! You won’t be working here very long. Learn to control your candidates!”

      Lesson learned — almost. Later, I encountered the other problem you mentioned. Two headhunters (one of them me) submitted the same candidate for a job. The employer could not establish who actually submitted first. The candidate was furious — he was summarily rejected without another interview because the employer was not going to litigate a “fee fight.”

      I never submitted another candidate over whom I didn’t have a measure of control, or to a real client.

      Pick one good headhunter for submission to a particular job, or don’t work with any. The really bad situation is when you submit yourself and the employer rejects you because a headhunter also submitted you — and the employer doesn’t pay fees at all. In that case, YOU are competing with the headhunter. You might submit an affidavit to the employer stating you did not grant permission for anyone else to submit you — but that doesn’t often work. The employer is still afraid of litigation.

      It’s a mess.

      • I have indeed written formal rescission letters to jerk recruiters who were ghosting me or just generally pissing me off with language revoking all authority to represent me to any potential employer, demanding that my CV be destroyed in their files, and threats of serious legal action for damages should they fail to do so. (All this presumed I had not yet been contacted for interviews etc. – only contacts with the recruiter thus far.)

        Never got a response, but never received a challenge either.

        Just don’t lose sight of the fact that YOU control your career, not them.

        • @Hank: I know others that have done the same. I’ve been told (don’t cite me – I’m not a lawyer!) that once you post your resume online, it’s fair game. Submitting you for a job may be another legal story! Any lawyers out there care to comment?

          • I’m sure that the small print on the online platforms when you sign up expressly permit exactly what you allege. But when I’m working with a recruiter one on one it’s all my rules as to what they may do with my CV. And I let them know it in no uncertain terms.

  10. I read your book in the late 90’s, and have been a regular follower since. Shortly after, I found a small company that did interesting work and reached out to one of the principals. They were interested in my skill set even though they didn’t have a specific opening at the time, and thought we might figure out how/where I fit, until they realized they already had my resume in their drawer of unsolicited resumes from “headhunters”. They didn’t reveal the individual, but I’m betting it was the firm that used to randomly dial desk phones in our company looking for engineers, and I had naively engaged with one of their reps on non-specific opportunities and provided a resume. That was the last time I did that without knowing what I was applying for and getting explicit agreement that nothing was distributed elsewhere without my consent. As for the company, since they weren’t actively hiring and I wasn’t actively looking, and they didn’t want to get involved in a fee fight, we just stayed in touch for about a year. When I decided I was ready to move on, as it happened, they were preparing to expand. (So it does work!) No doubt the disingenuous “headhunter” had moved on to some other hustle by then. When I eventually left that company, I worked with a head hunter specifically because he revealed the company in the first call, made a solid case for why I was an ideal fit. The second time I read ATH was on the airplane trip to the interview.

    At this point I’m content where I am – owing to an environment (and my persistence) that has allowed me to set a unique direction that uses my strengths and continues to challenge. But if I moved on it would be to something specialized, unconventional and compelling. I’m far more likely to find it via word of mouth or building relationships around interesting subject matter than a third party recruiter sifting keywords on LinkedIn. For now I bring my ATH consciousness to the hiring and mentoring end of the process whenever possible. Maybe time for another ATH reread from a different perspective!

    • @Meg: Thank you very much for your very kind words. I’m glad ATH has served you. Your story made my day, so it’s the last thing I’m going to read tonight. I don’t doubt that a very compelling new adventure is going to find you. All my best wishes.


  11. For giggles it would be interesting to know what the statistics are on:
    1.What is the success rate vs failure rate of placing candidates in positions by recruiters and headhunters?
    2.What is the career wash out rate for recruiters and headhunters vs the long term career success rate?
    I can conclude that the placement rate is low and the wash out rate is high, but it would still be interesting, IMO, to see any legit statistics.

  12. There’s another concern: headhunters who rat you out to your boss and/or upper management BEFORE you have an offer or another job.

    This happened to my brother–the “headhunter” contacted his boss, who then went to him and asked him if he was looking for another job. Ouch. After that, my brother refused to work with this “headhunter”, and later, when she’d contact him about former colleagues, he refused to return her call or engage with her in any way. Yes, he said it might hurt former colleagues who were being considered for jobs, but he thought she was so unethical, so unconcerned about the fate of candidates once their current bosses learn they’re looking that he refused to deal with her.

    If a headhunter were to contact me, I’d also want to get it in writing that s/he will NOT rat me out to my boss. If the headhunter refuses, buh-bye!

    • “But but we need to do reference checks! Candidates give us people who will only say good things about them!”

  13. One other observation. It seems to me that many of these “headhunters” have a poor understanding of the job itself.

    For example, I was recently contacted by a “headhunter” about a job. I had evaluated one of this companies products at my current role and we did not go with that product.

    Based on the experience I had working with that company, I felt the job advert was a bit of a bait and switch because I had worked with someone who held that position at that company. In other words, it was more of a “support” role than an “engineering” or “development” role.

    I ended up telling the “headhunter” I was not interested because of this (and another reason). He was backpedaling trying to tell me that there was a good amount of “development.”

    I then gave him a bit of a test. The job advert listed one of the benefits as a 401K with a company match. I asked him a simple question – what was the company match and when did it kick in? He did not know this – basically said that there was a match but he didn’t know the details. This told me all I needed to know, if he didn’t know simple, easily verifiable information, how could I trust him with what the job responsibilities are?

    • “If he didn’t know simple, easily verifiable information, how could I trust him with what the job responsibilities are”? Spot on right!
      And I’d add “when you call me from your living room sofa, Ms Recruiter, and I hear cartoons blaring on the television,and screaming kids in the background, that’s about as bush league as it comes, and instills zero credibility and confidence with me! The question then begs “do these employers even vet these headhunters and recruiters”? I’m not one of the “cool kids”, I don’t get unsolicited calls from headhunters and recruiters. I’ve only dealt with these types when I applied for a position off a job board or through a referral, then it’s been talking a good game, sending me assessment tests and hoops to jump through, followed by off the radar ghosting.

      • “I’m not one of the “cool kids”, I don’t get unsolicited calls from headhunters and recruiters.”

        Count yourself lucky, then.

        I’ve been approached by recruiters when I haven’t been actively looking – somehow I got into their database in my more naïve days.

        What I find hilarious is when they (or their client) reach out to you and then ask “Why are you looking to leave your job?” It’s like, “Oh, I don’t know, you called me. Why should I want to leave my employer?”

        • @David: This is such an obvious sign of an inept recruiter that it should kill any fantasy of going an inch further with them. They clearly have no idea how ridiculous they are.